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Interviews
 
Jonathan Goldman
Wednesday, Jun 1, 2005
Author: Will Plyler
 
An Honors graduate from the University of Arizona, Jonathan Goldman moved to Los Angeles in 1994. After working on several film and music video sets, Goldman cut his Hollywood teeth working with film director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games). In 1999 he was hired to write his first screenplay and most recently sold the horror/thriller “Water’s Edge” to Constantin Films with Sid Ganis’ Out of the Blue Entertainment producing. He is also writing an untitled thriller for UK-based Gruber Films and has sold a project to TNT Films based on the Hells Angels. Goldman is currently repped by Scott Henderson at Paradigm and manager Brad Mendelsohn at Industry Entertainment.
(May 2005)

 

Where are you from and where did you grow up?

I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, but I like to say I “grew up” in Tucson when I went to college (more on that later). We lived in the same house for twenty years and my parents are still there to this day. Our home is right on the border of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve so, as a kid, the Sonoran desert was my backyard. Needless to say, that’s made me a proud “desert rat.” There’s something magical about the desert. The smell. The colors. The fact that it can kill you. When I was a kid Phoenix was still a developing city. I hardly recognize it anymore, but growing up, there was an entire unexplored world outside the back door. My brother and I fought WWII there, blew up our “Star Wars” toys despite our dad saying they’d be worth something, we jumped our bikes, made forts in the mountains. Unfortunately, today the bike ramp lies beneath the concrete driveway of a family that wanted to build a house that looks like a Taco Bell. Needless to say, I’m still getting over it, but the place is still home.
 

When did you become first interested in screenwriting?

The desire to tell stories was always there. I remember being a young kid and wanting to write a book. I decided it would be about a raccoon. I had a piece of construction paper and a pencil and I stared at it for about an hour before realizing I had no idea how to write.

After that, I didn’t really spark to writing again until my senior year in high school. See, for my first three years of high school, I didn’t really do much of anything. This is mostly due to the fact that I was in a rock band (dark dirty secret). We played original songs and covers and from ages 15 to 18, I was playing gigs in local bars. We had a little following and (of course) we all thought we’d make it “big” and follow in the footsteps of “U2” and “Simple Minds.” Reality set in around senior year when my folks told me I had two choices: I could go to college and they would pay for my education or I could get a job and get the hell out of the house. I was still young, but not stupid.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that I took a creative writing course in school and wrote my first short story – about a priest who goes vigilante a la “Taxi Driver” after hearing someone confess to a murder. I got an “A” and that gave me the confidence that I needed to finish my last year with good grades. Despite the positive experience (my killer priest was a big jump from the silent raccoon) I still never thought about screenwriting per se. As a matter of fact, the whole notion of working in the “film business” never even occurred to me until I fully realized my fear and complete inability to understand mathematics. This condition, as I like to call it, came to a head in college.

Where did you go to college? Did you ever study film/writing?

I went to the University of Arizona in Tucson. When choosing my major it went down like this: Bachelor of Arts = college algebra, Bachelor of Fine Arts = computer course. I still don’t know what a freaking log rhythm is (I don’t even think I spelled it right!).

I majored in Media Arts with an emphasis on film. At the time the department was an amazing place to be. The UofA has a very successful and profitable sports department and when they made the transition from film to video, they needed to do something with all the film equipment and thus the Media Arts program was born. The good news was that it was like the Wild West. You could shoot whatever you wanted. The bad news was that Hollywood agents don’t really prowl the UofA for the next big thing.

As I loaded up on theory and technique I knew I wanted to direct (cliché, I know) so I teamed up with a guy who could take $300, go to Home Depot, and come back a week later with a car-mount, jib-arm and dolly-track. As a result, our films always looked good, but the stories left something to be desired. Still, we made four films together and in my senior year I struck out on my own. I wrote and directed a 16mm feature called “Anytime” on a $16,000 budget. It was about a schoolteacher traveling across the country to see his estranged wife, but on the way his car brakes down and he hitches a ride with an eccentric antique dealer who teaches him a few things about the past. The story is still close to my heart, but it’s a slow burn and the finished film was Jarmusch in a time when everyone wanted Rodriguez. I still think about rewriting it as a thriller. Someday, right?

Making these films taught me a lot about production and politics (the University functioned like a studio) but the person who taught me the most about writing worked in the theatre department.

As I geared up to make “Anytime” I enrolled in the University’s introductory playwriting course. The class was overcrowded, so some of the first year students had to go into an advanced class. I was one of those chosen and it was one of the greatest things to ever happen to me. Sam Smiley was my professor and he taught be more than anyone ever has about writing. He gave me very little technical information, but filled my mind with the philosophy of writing, the poetry of writing a play/script and that is something I strive for to this day. When I have a meeting, the greatest compliment I can get from an executive is that they thought my script was an “easy read.” We’ve all read scripts – it’s tough, tedious – but executives read dozens each week so for them to say they were able to read it in one sitting always makes my day – hopefully Sam Smiley would be proud.

Tell us about writing your first script.  What was your approach like?

Technically, the first script I ever wrote was my thesis film, “Anytime.” I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had never read a “real” movie script and I used some Word Perfect program to type it out. I remember being shocked when my professor read it and said, “Great job. All your act breaks are on time.” I was like, “They are? …where should they be?” I suppose that stuff came naturally, but my approach to that script was the need for an emotional release. I was getting over the loss of my first love (she moved out of the country) and the script was basically me getting over it and moving on. I wrote it from the heart and when I look back on it now, I have no idea how I put it all on paper. I think I ran a lot of ideas by people (I still do) but there was no outlining. It was very stream of consciousness and primitive.

What was your first “break”?

After college I moved to LA. I had my films under my arm and piss-and-vinegar in my blood. That lasted for about a month. I soon realized that every star student moved to LA…along with everyone else! I knew if I ever wanted to direct I had to learn how to write better stories. I spent a few years writing some scripts with my old film school partner, but we had a bad falling out. After that I didn’t write for a few years, in part because I was gun shy to strike out on my own, but also because I needed to pay the rent and landed a very demanding job, which changed my life.

Through one of my early PA gigs I made a friend who helped me get a job working for film director Phillip Noyce. In 1995 I started out on the coffee machine and by 1998 I was directing some 2nd Unit for him on a TV pilot and “The Bone Collector” (all while keeping that coffee hot, I might add). The lessons and skills I learned from Phillip are immeasurable, but what I also got out of the job was access to two successful screenwriters.

When I first joined Phillip we were working on “The Saint” and that’s when I met Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick. They’re two completely different writers, but they’re both great guys and, whether they knew it or not, they taught me everything I know about screenwriting on a professional level (one of them even introduced me to my wife!). It was through meeting them, and forcing myself under their wings, that I gained a genuine understanding and respect for the craft.

Jonathan read an early draft of a script I wrote with my old partner. It was an action script and he taught me how to write scenes with economy. There was a lot of red pen when he was done reading it, but I credit him for teaching me how to write the way you expect a script to read: quick and to the point.

Wesley read another script that was more of an action-comedy and he gave me great insight into characterization. He showed me how to let your characters drive the action. He also gave me a few of his own scripts to read and that helped me understand what it means to write with “a voice.”

Despite these meetings, I didn’t really get a “break” until four years later. I never asked Jonathan or Wesley for any help in the professional realm, their insight was enough, and what’s more, I never asked Phillip for any either. However, the script that Wesley gave me notes on landed in the hands of a producer who owned an independent production company. He was a wealthy man trying to get into the film business and he wanted to make a movie about “space pirates.” Of course, he didn’t want to pay a lot for a writer and that’s where I came in.

With horrible images of people on a spaceship in frilly shirts, I quickly came up with an idea that would either get me kicked out of the room, or land the gig. I’ve always been fascinated by the moon, so I did some research, found some dirt on one of the Apollo missions and came up with a story that I pitched as “Romancing the Stone” on the moon. It’s a female-driven treasure hunt that takes place on the first hotel built on the moon, but the loot is something that was covertly buried during one of the early Apollo missions. The script is called “One of These Days.” I got the gig and we took the script out in late August/early September 2001. We got great responses (we even went in to a few studios) but then the world changed. After 9-11 nobody wanted to make a $80 million space picture, and who could blame them? Still, the script put me in a lot of rooms and it still serves as a decent writing sample to this day. I still hold out hope that it’ll get made someday, because it’s a great ride.

You are currently repped by Paradigm?  How did you find representation with them? Who is your agent? And what is your relationship like? Do you talk often? Is there a lot feedback?

My manager introduced me to Scott Henderson while he was still an agent at Genesis. A few months after I signed with them the agency was absorbed by Paradigm. To be honest, I think I was a low-risk client, so I made the cut in the transition period. However, now that “Water’s Edge” is going to get made, the real fun is beginning. I’m looking forward to working with them on a long-term plan; having them send me out for open assignments and spread the word about my work. I’ve been with Scott for about a year now, but it feels like we’re just getting started and that’s exciting.

Brad Mendelsohn of Industry Entertainment is your manager.  How did you get hooked up with Brad?

When I was Phillip Noyce’s assistant, Brad was Steve Rabineau’s assistant (he reps Phillip). As a result, Brad and I talked every day and became friends. After a few years he got promoted to be an agent (Endeavor, at the time) so when I got hired to write “One of These Days” I called Brad and said, “Dude, will you do this deal for me?” He agreed. Fortunately, “OTD” was well received and Brad and I have stuck together over the years. When he became a manager, I was like, “Cool, so you’re my manger now, right?” To be honest, the guy didn’t make a dime off me for almost five years, so to have some success come now feels great. The guy has never failed to get me in a room and he’s always believed in me. You hang on to people like that.

You recently set up your horror thriller script WATER’S EDGE with Out of the Blue Entertainment, Constatin Film and Gruber Films producing.  What was the genesis of this project?  How did this deal come about? What was involved? What is the most current status of it?

One word: “Houseboat.” Like “space pirates” this project came to me as the result of an idea by a producer. Barry Bernardi, a line producer who has made several movies with Sid Ganis, said he wanted to do a horror film that takes place on a houseboat. Again, they didn’t have a lot of money. Again, Sid had read “OTD” and really liked it. And again, I was cheap.

They pitched me the idea (a horror film on a houseboat) and I only had one question: “Is this the kind of movie where we know who the killer is or we find out at the end?” They decided on the latter and I came back about a week later with a treatment. I knew to get the job I had to do one thing: come up with great deaths. Being from Arizona, I chose Lake Powell over Lake Havasu because it’s such a beautiful place and it’s also kind of scary and isolated. I also wanted the lead to be a girl. Fortunately, they liked the location, had no problem making the lead a local girl and they loved the deaths (all of which have remained unchanged from day one).

I wrote the first draft at night, in between my day jobs and finished late 2002/early 2003. Subsequent drafts elevated the story from cheap horror to more of a thriller and then we sent it out for financing. This road was long and hard and it happened in two rounds.

Round 1 hurt. Companies were passing on us for two reasons: 1) They were looking for supernatural horror films (this was just after “The Ring” but before “Texas Chainsaw”) and 2) they wanted a talent package. After hearing this, the producers teamed up with CAA and that’s when we got our lead actress and director attached. Jordana Brewster is our lead and I couldn’t be happier. She’s perfect for the role and has even come on board as a co-producer. She’s going to carry this film on her back and seeing her ready for the task is thrilling. Chris Applebaum is our director. This will be his feature debut, but he’s huge in the music video/commercial world (he’s getting lots of press for his controversial Paris Hilton “Carl’s Jr.” ad). To be honest, I’ve always had reservations about video directors doing features, but when I saw Chris’ reel I knew we were in good hands because every one of his videos has a narrative thread. We met for the first time and the guy knew the script better than I did! We get along great and he has so much respect for the script, I think I’m getting spoiled.

Round 2 felt much better. With Chris and Jordana on board, we were bringing more to the table than just paper. The producers had a few good meetings, but things really got cooking when Gruber Films, who has a good relationship with Sid’s company (they even hired me to write a UK thriller based on “Water’s Edge”) introduced me to the folks at Constantin Film.

Right now we’re closing everyone’s deals and soon we’ll get a casting director on board to round out the cast. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll be shooting in September.

Also are you doing rewrites with this project? Have you had to change it much?

I’m sure I’ll be doing re-writes and tweaks until each scene is shot, that’s just the nature of the beast, but to be honest, the script gets better with each pass. We’ve had our battles, but everyone is very respectful and ultimately cares about telling the best story possible. I just peeked at the first draft to see when I finished it and it reads like a totally different story! Ultimately, with this genre, what you want to do is create some great shocking moments and then spend the rest of your time working on your main character so that he/she is relatable and feels real. Again, the most important thing is that, while I’ve done a lot of work on this script, I truly feel each draft has been an improvement. When that feeling changes I’ll either put my foot down or get fired.

Do you do much research when preparing to write a script?  Do you travel? Take tours?  Visit libraries?

Yes. I feel like research leads to story, or at least set pieces. I did a tremendous amount of research for “OTD” and “Water’s Edge.” From my work on “OTD” I feel like a total geek because I know so much about space tourism and the moon. Still, it’s knowledge I love having and I keep it with me because it always pops up in everyday life. For example, it was no surprise to me when the President announced his plans to return to the moon, it possesses the next frontier in energy from a substance found there called Helium-3 (but I digress).

Alas, almost all of my research is done on a computer and not in a library. I actually love going to libraries, but it’s just too easy to get the stuff you need on the internet and it takes less time. If I’m going to leave the house/office to do research, it has to give me more than a book and that means travel. There is nothing better than actually seeing a location to get ideas and understand what it’s all about. My visit to Lake Powell allowed me to see the lay of the land and that helped me write the first draft without feeling like a foreigner.

Obviously you can’t do everything. There was nobody willing to fly me to the moon for “OTD” and I thought better than to kill someone for “Water’s Edge” but finding the right balance of research and travel always helps bring the story along. As a matter of fact, I’m in the middle of the first draft of my UK thriller for Gruber Films and I know I’ll need a trip to London for the rewrite. It’s just too hard writing a set piece without being there to map it out.

Have you done many pitch meetings?  Do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?

Pitching is an art in-and-of itself and there are two kinds of pitches: the open assignment and the sell. In truth they’re both “sells” but for the sake of argument, I’m referring to pitching original material in the latter. I’ve done both with varying success.

The open assignment world is very tough. You go in, meet the players, hear what they have and then go off in your own world and try to win them over with your take on the material. What I find hard about this is time. I feel like I can always deliver given the time, but it usually takes me more than a week to fully develop my thoughts and if they think you can’t do it in a week, you’re too slow. To me this is a shame, because your pitch (essentially, your outline) is the most important part of your writing. If you deliver a solid pitch/outline, the first draft should be easy. Needless to say, I’m trying to work faster, but a lot of the time it ultimately seems to come down to the writer with the most “heat” behind him/her.

The original material pitch can be just as tough when you’re starting out, because as a writer, you’re not “set-upable.” This was a new word to me, but basically it means the studio won’t hire you based on a pitch because you haven’t written anything of note that’s been made. Despite this, I recently sold an original pitch to TNT Films that’s based on the Hells Angels. I was able to do this because, first and foremost, the project is an incredible story, but also because the outline/pitch was solid and that’s because it took almost a year to develop! It paid off in the end, but in the open assignment world, you don’t get a year. Also, even though TNT heard the pitch and read detailed treatment, they still needed a writing sample to assure them that I could deliver. Brad sent them “OTD” and we made the deal.

The advice I’d give to other writers is to have passion during your pitch. Move your arms, widen your eyes. They might think you’re crazy, but they’ll also think you believe what you’re telling them. Try not to bog them down with silly details, just give them the trailer and show them you have a larger understanding of the overall story. Lastly, take your time. If you need more time before pitching them, take it. I know it sounds contradictory to what I said earlier about speeding up, but it’s better to go in later at 100% than on time at 60%. Finally, if you’re brought in to rewrite me, please pass. (Laughs)

What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?

There are two kinds of notes: those you get from trusted confidants and those you get from people who are paying you. There are also two kinds of writers: those who take notes well and those who do not. Those who do not are not long for this world. If you’re getting paid, it’s not just about listening to notes; it’s about executing them as well.  I recently had an executive call me after reading a re-write on one of my scripts. He said, “You have no idea how refreshing it is to give notes to a writer and see them on the page in the next draft. Thank you.” It made me wonder, is that why writer’s get replaced so often?

Personally, I like getting notes. By the time I’m done with a draft I’m ready for feedback. I’ve received notes that have saved my scripts and I’ve been given some asinine notes, too (those famous ones like, “Does it have to be in space?”). It just boils down to the people you’re working with. Some people give terrible notes, others are brilliant at it, but the bottom line is this: if you hear the same note from three different sources, listen to it.

Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your agent or manager?

Yes. I’ll harass whomever I can get at the time, but nothing I write goes out until I get notes from my wife. She has the ability to find problems in the story and suggests “writer friendly” solutions, such as, “If your hero says ‘this’ on page 60, it will fix the problem you’re having in the third act.” You can’t ask for better notes than that. Brad gives me notes, too, but it’s more of a gut reaction. Does he like it? Does he think we can sell it? Beyond them, I have a few other confidants that I turn to, but it’s kind of on a rotating basis. If they’re not sick of me, or have a particular interest in the story, I’ll hit them up for notes.

What are some things that you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out? Do’s and don’ts?

I’m not in a position to tell people what NOT to do (I already got carried away with the notes section above) so all I will say about this is: DON’T burn bridges. That person making coffee could be in charge of the company you’re trying to work for in five years, and if you’re an asshole, he/she will remember you…same if you’re nice. But didn’t we all learn this lesson at home? What goes around comes around.

Oh, one other thing. My parents are not motivational speaker types, but a few years ago when I was home for Thanksgiving, I noticed a Post-It next to the telephone, it said: “Adversity is inevitable. Misery is optional.” I thought it was a brilliant motto and it goes hand-in-hand with the whole process of being a writer. I try to remember that during the inevitable dark times of being a writer. Feel free to use it, too.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

For years I was writing at night. I worked a 9-7 job, came home, ate dinner and then wrote until midnight. Not only did it kill me, it hurt my marriage, because we never spent any time together. That’s what I’m most grateful for now, having a “normal” life after hours.

Now, I wake up with my wife around 8:00am, shower, get dressed, listen to music or watch a morning show. As my wife leaves the house, I walk the dog and then we go for a drive. We grab a 3-shot cappuccino, come back home and check e-mails, websites, news blogs, etc. By around 10:00-10:30am I’m ready to write. I’ll work until around 1:00pm and either make lunch at home or go out for a bite with a friend. I try to get back to work by around 2:00-2:30 and continue writing until around 6:00pm.

Note: this whole routine depends on whether or not it’s basketball season. If the Phoenix Suns are playing on the east coast, I have a tendency to check out a bit early.

Do you outline all your scripts first?  Write treatments?

I have a very weird system. A few years ago I attended the Writer’s Boot Camp (fellow interviewee Gary Goldstein was my teacher and he was great). The tools that program gives you are very practical and they always work – it’s literally a 12-step program for writing! However, unless I have an instructor watching over me, I never quite get through all 12 steps. I always start out with the best of intentions, creating at least six of the required 12 cause-and-effect sentences that lay out the entire film, but after that things kind of take on a life of their own. Sometimes I’ll go from a few cause/effect sentences straight to a treatment, then realize I’m being too detailed and resort to simple bullet points that carry me through each moment in the film. Ultimately, I’ll take those bullet points and re-type them into a detailed treatment. Honestly, I try to stick to the Boot Camp system every time because it works, but I just get carried away. Someday I’ll nail it, but I always end up with some kind of a treatment. If you’re writing for hire, they’ll always want one, anyway.

Not surprisingly, I find outlining and writing treatments to be the hardest part of the process. The plus side of this is that I often spend so much time working on the treatment that the first draft comes pretty easily. Whenever I have a job and they like the treatment I always say, “Good, because I can guarantee you one thing: the script will never be worse than this.”

There’s also a 10-step (maybe 8?) method that they teach at USC. I’ve never seen how they break it down, but if anyone knows it, I’d love to see it.

How much of theme do you keep in mind overall? Scene by scene? And do you find yourself initially or eventually asking what's the point?

I love theme, but sometimes it doesn’t come to me until the end of the first draft. Writing is tough and usually an idea comes in the form of a spark – a germinal idea – or a set-up. Taking that good idea and turning it into a full-blown story is very difficult, but if you tell a good story, there’s always a theme. I don’t get hung up on it until I’m done and by that time, if I haven’t found the theme in the process, it’s pretty easy to find it after the first read. Then it’s just about exploiting that theme in the way people act, talk and also layering that theme into a sub-plot/b-story as well.

All too often I’ll find myself writing (or reading) a script and halfway through I’ll just stop and ask myself, “who gives a shit about this?” I think if you have to ask that question there’s something wrong with you main character. In any good movie you want to care about that person (maybe you’re supposed to hate them) but you have to have some kind of emotional reaction. If you don’t, what’s the point? Not every film has to have a larger-than-life meaning, but a good one should have to have something. In “Water’s Edge” we don’t get too heavy with the main character – it is a horror/thriller after all – but she still goes through a journey in the end that touches on the themes of loss and knowing where you belong. Likewise with “OTD.” That script is a huge action/adventure, but in the end it’s a simple story about love, family and closure.

How do you approach rewrites?  Any method or path that you typically follow?

Every script is in some form for being re-written until it hits the multiplex. Personally, I gather everyone’s notes and just start plugging away in sequence. It can be scary because the shape and pace of the script starts to change, but I always remind myself that the original draft is saved on the computer. I can always go back. When I remember that it’s easier for me to change things up, think in a different way and deconstruct the story. This rewriting process goes on for many drafts. Some of them involve big changes (like the first rewrite) while others just involve dialogue tweaks or what I call “character passes.”

What things do you feel more writers need to know or recognize about themselves and/or the industry?

Feature writers have to remember where they are on the food chain. Yes, we’re “above the line” but there are plenty of people with power above us, and all of them will have an opinion about the script. It’s your job to know your story and know what you can and can’t live without. Pick your battles. There will be plenty.

Lastly, I think every writer should do everything they can to not to perpetuate the “whiny writer” cliché. Have conviction and stick to your guns, but don’t be precious. Filmmaking is a fluid process and while everyone does take the act of writing for granted, they’re all making as many changes as the writer in their own way. Writing is re-writing, even after you get the green light, so find your lifelines in the script, hang on to them, let them be known and then ride the rest because it’s going to be a crazy journey.

And what are your favorite scripts?  Scripts you’d say every writer should read and learn from? Or writers you admire?

It’s funny, but a lot of my favorite scripts turned out to be mediocre movies. Nevertheless, if you can get your hands on the following scripts, read them, because it wasn’t the writer’s fault they sucked. JOE SOMEBODY by John Scott Shepherd (seriously, this was a great script), 12 MONKEYS by David Webb Peoples (the film was good but the script was even better) AFTER THE SUNSET by Paul Zbyszewski.

Some other scripts that I like that turned out well (or are yet to be made): THE BOURNE SUPREMACY by Tony Gilroy and Brian Helgeland (this thing reads just like the movie), THE SKELTON KEY by Ehren Kruger (I hope this turns out good), THE BIG LEBOWSKI by Joel and Ethan Cohen (reading this is like watching the movie, only better) L.A. CONFIDENTIAL by James Ellroy, Curis Hanson and Brian Helgeland (I think the “Rollo Tomasi” twist is one of the greatest in film history), UNFORGIVEN by David Webb Peoples (one of the best films of all time) and then there’s always CHINATOWN by Robert Towne.

What else are you working on now or next?  Spec scripts? Assignments? What are they are they about?

Right now I’m working on the “vomit draft” of the UK-based thriller for Gruber Films as well as re-writes for “Water’s Edge” and I’m waiting to hear back from TNT on my first draft.

All the while I have Brad and Scott chasing down assignments – trying to strike while the iron is warm. By early next year I also plan on having a long-gestating spec ready to roll. I’m actually excited about this one because it’s totally different from my other work – an Elmore Leonard-type story with a wry sense of humor. I’m also always hunting down books that I can option, adapt and direct. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the life of a writer and am incredibly grateful that I get to do this for a living – there is still so much to learn – but I still plan on itching that scratch to direct again. I think it has something to do with me being the keyboardist in my high school rock band. I wrote most of the songs, but the lead singer got all the glory. Someday, I’d like to be in charge of telling the whole story, but for now, I’m happy still pounding away at the keys.

 


 

 

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